How rowing at university helped my mental health

By Katie Heyes

Ever since I received that acceptance letter from Durham University, rowing was always something on my bucket list. Seeing as it’s one of the most popular sports in Durham, I thought: hey, why not give it a go?

But truth be told, I was also very nervous at the same time.

Between you and me, I’ve never been much of a sporty person. You name it: running, trampolining, even orienteering… I could never get the hang of them, always being the last person to be picked for teams and scoring the lowest in classes. I consequently adopted a kind of defeatist attitude towards sport and I’d always feel rather intimidated by the competitive attitudes of other students. In my high school there was very much a go-all-the-way-or don’t-go-there-at-all kind of atmosphere and whilst that may be fun for some students, it was very pressurising for me. Looking back now I can see how those lessons were really detrimental to my self-esteem. Instead of treating PE lessons as a fun break from lessons and a chilled activity, other students would start angrily insulting me because of how bad I was, which sounds ridiculous looking back now (it’s a PE lesson not the Olympics!) but at the time I let it get to me. So whenever I made my way to the sports hall I’d always be carrying this immense fear of being ridiculed for not being able to meet a certain standard.

I adopted a defeatist attitude towards sport

However, as soon as I came to Durham, it was a totally different story.

Not only was that stress and fear of ridicule now non-existent but I began to actually enjoy the physical challenge. Sure, I might not be the fastest rower (in fact I’m actually one of the slowest) but surprisingly enough that’s never been a problem! As you go through the Learn to Row course you begin to gradually develop the skills needed and it can be at your own pace. They specially organise groups for you based on your technical ability and whether you want to be on a competitive team or a more relaxed one. Whether you’re a complete novice or at a more intermediate level, you never feel pressured to meet a certain standard because everyone on your team is (pardon the pun) in the same boat!

The Learn to Row course allows you to gradually develop the skills needed

I can’t emphasise enough how much this felt like a massive weight being lifted off my shoulders! Whilst I know a lot of people enjoy competitive sport, seeking more thrills in a match or race rather than the calm feeling of chilled sport, it’s never really been my thing and there were more people from my high school class in the former category which meant I could never really appreciate the benefits of physical activity as to me it was always associated with high performance skills. If I wasn’t adequate than I shouldn’t even try as I’d only annoy others with my incompetency.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Take for example, my first experience on the river. First of all – little side-note – I was shocked just how narrow the boats really are. At first glance I honestly thought my bum was not going to fit! But once you get past the initial tension about whether you’re in time with the person in front of you and making sure you’ve got the correct technique, you begin to realise just how relaxing and beautiful rowing can be. Whilst you do have to concentrate on your technique initially, you begin to develop a rhythm and all of a sudden you start to appreciate the lovely surroundings.

You begin to develop a rhythm and appreciate the lovely surroundings

I was constantly in awe of the scenery as when you’re en route from lecture to lecture you take for granted all the gorgeous sights that Durham has to offer. And getting to do that on the river passing under the bridge has a certain romantic and elegant charm to it. Whilst you may be aching all over at the end of an outing, it’s worth it for the sense of fulfilment you get at the end. Upon finishing I remember feeling so refreshed and motivated for the day which really has improved my overall well-being and work ethic.

So I guess what I wanted to say is that sometimes you’ve got to tread the waters to determine whether something truly works for you or not. I can see now I let my own past unpleasant experience affect my current mind-set – whilst it may seem easier to give up on something completely due to the difficulties that can arise from it – this can be really detrimental to your wellbeing. Just because you’ve had one bad experience, you shouldn’t let it put you off something completely. The best way I can describe it is with an uplifting quote my friend used earlier this week – “you can either be a victim or a victor.” What’s different about having a hard time is how you deal with it, you could look at it one way in a pessimistic sense and feel like there’s never going to be a positive outcome and feel like a victim or you can use that challenging time to propel you in life and become a mentally as well as physically stronger version of yourself. This is certainly something that drives me.

You’ve got to tread the waters to determine whether something truly works for you

When I came to Durham and starting challenging my attitude towards sport, I’ve become so much more confident in my own capabilities and in some ways it has opened so many more pathways in my life. I met my lots of my friends through rowing, as well as becoming healthier and more outgoing. If I never challenged the pessimistic mindset I had, I would never have met so many of my friends and would not be as self-assured as I am now.

Long story short: never let one bad experience put you off! Starting rowing was definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done at university.

For those of you who are thinking of getting back into a childhood hobby or activity you always fancied trying but have been nervous about starting, why not give it a go? You never know where that may lead!

Image: WikiMediaImages via Creative Commons

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